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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 224 – FX prelims preview

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Get the scoop on the televised portion of UFC 224, featuring the always-exciting Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos and rising prospects Karl Roberson, Junior Albini, and Davi Ramos looking to impress.

The televised portion of UFC 224 has very little name appeal. The most experienced fighter on this portion of the card in terms of UFC fights is Cezar Ferreira. True, number of appearances isn’t the best way to gauge a fighter’s popularity – otherwise, Jim Miller would be on Conor McGregor’s level of fame – but names like Junior Albini and Davi Ramos aren’t doing anything to sell tickets… yet. Also worth noting, Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos is on the card. True, the welterweight striker doesn’t give off the impression he’ll be a contender someday, but he doesn’t know how to be in a boring contest. I understand that can be a learned trait, but are you telling me dos Santos won’t look to put on a show for his fellow Brazilians? I don’t think so.

The televised prelims are on FX at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.

Cezar Ferreira (12-6) vs. Karl Roberson (6-0), Middleweight

No one has ever doubted Ferreira’s physical abilities. He’s built like Adonis and has proven to be a surprisingly effective grappler. However, he’s also proven to be one of the chinniest fighters to set foot in the Octagon in recent memory. To his credit, he has learned to avoid taking excess damage with improved footwork and cage awareness, salvaging what was once a floundering UFC career. The thing he’s done above all to avoid being KO’d is focusing on a ground based approach, scoring takedowns and maintaining control of his opponent for long periods of time. It isn’t that he can’t strike; he’s simply better off not risking opponents catching him square on the chin.

Roberson is a talented striker, having experience in the Glory kickboxing organization. His results there were mixed, but he has taken much better to MMA thus far in his young career. His short area power is a huge plus and he’s shown some grappling and wrestling chops that most weren’t sure were developed yet when he submitted Darren Stewart with an RNC in Roberson’s UFC debut. Despite having made his debut and his appearance on the Contender’s Series, there still isn’t a lot of footage on Roberson, making him very much a wild card. What is known though is the kid has been able to stay cool under pressure, an indication of big things to come.

Roberson appears to have a lot going for him, but he also benefitted from facing Stewart, someone who isn’t known for possessing a high fight IQ. The same would have been said about Ferreira a few years ago, but Ferreira has completely flipped that narrative on its head. Ferreira is no longer the hyped prospect, now becoming the wise veteran who tests the youngsters on the up-and-up. Roberson has the skills to pass this test. What I don’t know is if he has the smarts. I’m not saying he’s stupid if he doesn’t pass this test. It’s more of a commentary on his lack of experience which leads to greater fight intelligence. Whether he wins or losses, I expect this to be a very valuable contest for Roberson moving forward. Ferreira via decision

Aleksei Oleinik (52-11-1) vs. Junior Albini (14-3), Heavyweight

Oleinik might just be Old Man River after all as he just continues to roll on at the age of 40. Sure, he did lose to Curtis Blaydes in his last appearance, but Blaydes proved his mettle when he secured a win over Mark Hunt. Now Oleinik plays gatekeeper to another youngster in Albini, one whom the UFC hopes can overthrow the veteran Russian.

Albini was put on the fast track to contention when the UFC matched him up with Andrei Arlovski in Albini’s sophomore effort. Albini disappointed with a lethargic effort, but no one disputes he still has the talent within him to become a serious player. What plagued him against Arlovski was a lack of stamina and activity. When Albini’s conditioning is in order, he possesses deceptive agility and good power in his fists, putting down a durable Timothy Johnson in Albini’s UFC debut. Albini is reputed to be a sound grappler as well, though there hasn’t been a whole lot of proof thus far against credible opposition.

There may not be a heavyweight on the roster who is less talented physically than Oleinik, but there also isn’t one with more experience. Oleinik has seen it all and knows every single trick in the book… no surprise given he has written a few chapters about supposedly innocuous skills. The problem is he doesn’t have the ability to pull out every trick. Nonetheless, hHis specialty is the Ezekiel choke, owning eleven wins with the rarely seen hold. He also has three neck crank victories in his last five wins, adding another rarely utilized hold to his already vast bag of tricks. Oleinik also has some surprising power in his fists which he can often find a home for with his awkward gait. However, expecting him to win a striking contest over 15 minutes is too much to ask.

Oleinik is continually underestimated due to his lack of physical skills and orthodox skill set. For instance, his traditional wrestling isn’t anything special, but he knows how to get the fight to the ground in whatever manner he can find. Albini is eminently hittable and his ground game hasn’t been tested at a high level yet. Yes, Albini is no doubt more talented, as was Blaydes. However, Albini isn’t on the same level of Blaydes. Plus, I worry about his fight IQ following his last appearance. I’m picking the old man to do the damn thing. Oleinik via submission of RD2

Davi Ramos (7-2) vs. Nick Hein (14-2-1), Lightweight

It’s been 20 months since Hein last stepped into a UFC cage, injury to the German striker being the main culprit. Though he has a 4-1 record, it’s deceiving as his best win over that time came against Drew Dober – now his brother-in-law – four years ago, the rest of Hein’s wins coming against opposition with a 2-8 record combined in the confines of the Octagon. He’s a bit of a conundrum as his background is that of a judoka, but has fought almost exclusively as a combination boxer thus far in his UFC career. He is a skilled boxer, but he’s also very short, clocking in at 5’6” with a 66” reach.

Ramos will only have 2” in height, but the 4” in reach he’ll have on Hein will be of greater value. Then again, Ramos isn’t exactly a disciplined striker capable of capitalizing on such an advantage. In fact, Ramos is a wild striker who often leaves himself open to counters. However, his physical gifts grant him enough power that opponents are wary of the consequences of when he lands that they don’t always want to risk throwing the counter. That isn’t what opponents fear most though. Ramos is a high-level BJJ practitioner with an Abu Dhabi championship in 2015. Though he doesn’t have a weakness in his grappling, his ability to take the back at lightning speed may be his greatest strength.

While I harp on Hein’s reluctance to take the fight to the ground, his stout frame and judo skills have made it very difficult for him to be taken down, which could negate Ramos’ superior grappling skills. Ramos is the popular pick based on his superior physical skills and rightfully so. But Hein’s ability to take a shot leads me to doubt that Ramos can finish him off unless Ramos shows some new skills… a very strong possibility. I’m torn, but I’m going with the more disciplined Hein. Hein via decision

Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos (18-5) vs. Sean Strickland (19-2), Welterweight

Am I the only one who finds it a bit curious that dos Santos has secured a four-fight win streak, largely in an entertaining manner, and he gets Strickland? Not to rip on Strickland – this is an intriguing contest – but Strickland won three in a row against a similar level of competition and got an opportunity against Kamaru Usman. I’m just saying….

It’s easy to forget Strickland is only 27-years old. He began his professional career a decade ago and has been in the UFC for four years already. A big and strong welterweight, Strickland has been transitioning into an out-fighter who relies heavily on the jab to piece up the opposition after developing a reputation as a bruiser earlier in his career. His physicality still comes into play as opponents have continually found it difficult to take the California native to the ground, but he’d be well served to use it on more than just stuffing takedowns.

Dos Santos should bring out the best in Strickland. An aggressive striker with stinging punches and kicks, there may not be a welterweight on the roster more willing to stand in the pocket and exchange fisticuffs the same way that dos Santos does. He hasn’t shown the ability to finish with a single strike, but his iron chin and ability to pour on the volume makes this strategy one that works very well for him. Dos Santos has made minor strides in his wrestling on the offensive side, but it’s still fairly easy to get him to the ground.

Strickland has been a bit of a frustrating prospect as he doesn’t always use his tools to the extent they should be utilized. Will he throw more than just a jab? Will he utilize his competent wrestling game? If the answer is no to either of these questions, he opens the door to dos Santos pulling out a win in a contest he is at a disadvantage stylistically. Strickland is durable as hell too, so a finish will be difficult to come by for either competitor. Dos Santos via decision


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